Is the Steelers offensive line in trouble?

You can’t get much more blunt than the headline states: heading into training camp it appeared that the Steelers offensive line, while in a state of change, was actually quite deep.

The conclusion of camp saw Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin undecided on a starter, listing Zach Banner “or” Chukwuma Okorafor on the team’s first official depth chart for the 2020 season.

The right tackle battle had been one to watch this offseason, as in 2019, Matt Feiler manned the position admirably, but was being groomed to takeover for the retiring Ramon Foster at left guard.

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The movement along the line is a continuing storyline from the Steelers having one of the strongest fronts in all of football for several seasons throughout last decade. Under the tutelage of offensive line coach Mike Munchak, several undrafted or under-drafted players excelled as starters including Alejandro Villanueva, who had been named to several Pro Bowls since assuming the starting role from an injured Kelvin Beachum.

Chris Hubbard, a guard converted to tackle, played well enough to land a huge contract with the Cleveland Browns a couple of seasons ago. Even when Maurkice Pouncey or Foster were hurt, reserve lineman B.J. Finney (also undrafted) stepped in and the team didn’t skip a beat upfront.

But last season appeared different, with injuries and suspensions taking their toll on several key areas of the offense. The shake-ups were frequent and the chemistry wasn’t consistent.

Many felt that Munchak’s departure was to blame, but not having key players such as Ben Roethlisberger under center, or James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster (who were being counted on to replace All-Pro’s Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown) was also a blow to the offensive effort.

Feiler, who initially moved over to right tackle when Marcus Gilbert couldn’t remain reliable, and was then traded to Arizona, was moved again to left guard during camp. Fixtures such as Pouncey and Villanueva were to join perennial All-Pro David DeCastro as part of the starting lineup. Mike Tomlin had said that both Banner and Okorafor were “starter capable”.

Free agent addition Stefan Wisniewski, who just came from being a contributor to the Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl win in 2019, was thought to perhaps be a veteran starter but instead took over Finney’s role as a reserve guard.

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In Monday’s opener, however, all of this optimism went south as DeCastro was ruled out prior to the game and Pittsburgh lost two of the linemen, Wisniewski and Banner, to injury. Wisniewski was playing in DeCastro’s place – and it’s unknown how long his pectoral injury may keep him out of action while DeCastro heals from a shoulder injury himself.

Down two guards, the Steelers turned to rookie, fourth round pick out of Louisiana Lafayette, Kevin Dotson, so step in at right guard. His few snaps were promising and the Steelers running game still had legs as Benny Snell took over for Conner as well.

Heading into their home opener this Sunday, the Steelers hope to get DeCastro back as well as hope Wisniewski’s setup back is shorter than longer. However, they have lost Banner, who won the starting right tackle job, for the season with a torn ACL. The team officially placed him on IR at the end of the league day Wednesday.

It’s unlikely the Steelers will shuffle the deck, moving Feiler back to tackle, at this time. With Okorafor getting a good share of reps in his competition with Banner, as well as high praise even while losing the job, it’s now his – Villanueva, Feiler, and Pouncey all remain in place.

That’s three of the five spots, and if you take the coaches’ word that Okorafor is also “starter capable”, then four of the five spots on the line are secure; at least in theory.

DeCastro’s return could solidify things for the Steelers, but his absence could also be a cause for concern with two brand-new starters on the right side of the line.

As for depth, and noted in the tweet above, the Steelers brought back former fourth round pick Jerald Hawkins, who was traded at the end of last preseason to Tampa Bay (and now acquired from the Texans practice squad).

The positive news is that the Steelers upcoming opponent, the Denver Broncos, were unable to register much pressure on the Tennessee Titans in the later of the two Monday games. Denver, also on a short week, has to travel to Pittsburgh Sunday and quickly prepare for whatever lineup the Steelers use.

This could be in Pittsburgh’s benefit, but being down two or three players upfront is still an area to keep an eye on. It’s also painfully obvious that the team cannot afford any other setbacks along the line either, as James Conner deals with an ankle injury and they just got Ben Roethlisberger back after missing nearly the entire 2019 season.

The offensive line will be a key to the team remaining a Super Bowl contender. However, it’s not time to set off the alarms yet. Even with DeCastro’s availability in flux, rushing him back could be a mistake – I suspect the Steelers will handle the situation appropriately and perhaps wait one more week until the Watt family reunion in Week 3, when J.J. Watt lines up on the field.

So long as the Steelers have a nucleus of their top three on the line playing for the majority of the season, the offense should continue to progress at the pace we saw on Monday night without issue. Therefore, I don’t believe that Pittsburgh’s line, or offense, is any immediate trouble.

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